Trump versus Roosevelt: two leaders compared

The American fascination with, or possibly contempt for, Donald Trump’s election as President has spawned a new wave of documentaries and newspaper articles by commentators attempting to compare Trump to Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).


Trump’s victory, in the face of the opinion polls and unprecedented opposition from both Hillary Clinton’s Democrats and from within Trump’s own Republican Party, was undoubtedly unexpected and a major shock to the political establishment. It will inevitably lead to a period of dynamic instability as America begins to cope with Trump’s unpredictable personality.


Yet, how far can comparisons between Trump and Roosevelt really be pushed? The San Diego Union Tribune wrote recently that, ‘Both were known for touting the virtues of vigour and strength, and appealing to audiences because of their imposing physical presence’. But is it enough to offer an early comparison based solely on both men’s extrovert personalities? Is it wise to compare Trump’s single election victory with Roosevelt who, after all, is considered by numerous U.S. historians as one of America’s greatest Presidents, ranking alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln? On the surface, these two individuals – Trump and Roosevelt – appear to share a commonality in their origins, both being born into wealthy New York families. Both have also been extensively satirised by the media. However, this is probably where the similarities end.

Theodore Roosevelt was born on 27th October, 1858, in New York City, the second of four children. His ancestry, on his father’s side, derived from six generations of Dutch immigrants who settled in Manhattan, becoming financially successful entrepreneurs and joining part of New York’s elite. His mother, Martha Roosevelt nee Bulloch, was a ‘southern belle’, whose family supported and fought for the Confederacy. Theodore, or ‘Teddy’, a nickname he loathed, was known for his physical vigour but grew up as a sickly child suffering from violent attacks of bronchial asthma. Protected from the outside world by home schooling, he was inspired by his father, whom he revered, to commence a demanding physical regimen that included running, weightlifting and boxing, eventually outgrowing many of his illnesses.


He continued this tough physical routine during his time at Harvard, graduating in the top five of his class in 1880. After Harvard, he briefly enrolled in Columbia Law School, for which he was clearly unsuited, and was convinced by friends to leave for a career in politics instead. Roosevelt sought public office and was elected as a New York City Representative to the New York State Assembly, being the youngest ever to serve.

At the same time, he married Alice Hathaway Lee, whom he courted for the previous five years and to who he was totally devoted. Roosevelt lost his wife after just four years of marriage and, on the same day, his mother also died. Roosevelt would write in his diary that ‘the light has gone out of my life’ (see diary page in photo). Following the death of both his mother and wife, Roosevelt retired from politics, moving to South Dakota to take up the life of a cowboy and rancher, learning to rope and ride western style. He established the Elk Horn Ranch and, even though he earned the respect of many of his contemporaries, he was still considered a ‘dude’ rancher. The winter of 1886 ended Roosevelt’s foray into ranching when the temperature fell to minus 40 centigrade, but not before he had completed four books, the last being published just prior to his departure from South Dakota.

Returning to political life in 1886, Roosevelt stood and was defeated in his ambition to be Mayor of New York. Though this was a big a setback, he soon resumed his political career, first as a Civil Service Commissioner, then as New York City Police Commissioner, and finally as Assistant U.S. Navy Secretary, before resigning this position to fight in the Spanish-American War at the head of his volunteer ‘Rough Rider’ regiment (see photo).


Roosevelt returned from the war a hero, and was nominated for the ‘Medal of Honor’ for his actions during the famous charge at Kettle Hill. Interestingly, Roosevelt’s son was also awarded the ‘Medal of Honor’ in World War Two for his actions during the Normandy D-Day invasion, thereby joining Douglas MacArthur and his father as the only other father and son recipients of this honour. Shortly after his return, Theodore Roosevelt was persuaded to enter the race to become Governor of New York, to which he was duly elected in 1899. During his short period in office, he became renowned for his twice-daily press conferences, which were always volatile affairs, and – even more significantly – for the introduction of anti-trust legislation aimed at curbing corporate power (something present-day ‘Trumpians’ conveniently overlook). Roosevelt also championed the working man, enacting legislation to curb the 46,000 industrial accidents reported in New York State each year.

Following the death of the Vice-President in November, 1899, a number of businessmen in New York campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt to be William McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 Presidential campaign. Why? Roosevelt was seen as a progressive reformer, who had damaged New York’s industry. By persuading him to run with as vice-President with McKinley, the businessmen hoped they would be rid of Roosevelt’s interference in their businesses. Although McKinley was initially reluctant to have Roosevelt at his side, the two men were elected by a landslide victory in November, 1900. However, the business-backed conspiracy to transfer Roosevelt from the New York Governor’s office to the White House backfired as – just 300 days into the Presidency – McKinley was assassinated on September 6th, 1901.

Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President of the USA on September 14th, 1901, and he would go on to win re-election in 1904 by an even greater margin than in 1900. During his time as President, Roosevelt would, amongst his many achievements, establish the National Parks, National Forestry Service, enact further anti-trust legislation and initiate the construction of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt was an academic, an historian, a rancher, a military hero and – arguably – one of America’s greatest Presidents.


Whilst one can have a great deal of respect for the entrepreneurial skills of Donald Trump, whose business acumen has made him a billionaire, to compare him to Theodore Roosevelt after just one month in office is both unrealistic and, frankly, incomprehensible. Trump has no military experience, having been given exemption from the draft during the Vietnam War, nor has he ever held public office before the Presidency. He is also notably keen to repeal environmentally-friendly safeguards and regulations.

As such, given all this, I would suggest that he cannot be compared to Roosevelt. Trump has to be given time to establish himself as President and create his own stamp on American history. Any attempt to portray him as the ‘new Roosevelt’ is a failure to understand or even comprehend the achievements and true historic greatness of ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt.

Stuart Smith is studying for his History Degree at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


This entry was posted in American history, Media history, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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